Once upon a time, Sears was the Amazon.com and Walmart of U.S. merchandising. Customers could order just about anything for delivery—even a kit to build a 10-room colonial-style house—from the Sears catalog, a compendium of the American dream with a reach into the rural parts of the country that helped make Sears, Roebuck America’s largest merchant. Sears helped create the shopping mall in the 1950s, working with developers to build the retail centers that grew with the exodus to the suburbs. And when customers needed financing, it created a massive credit arm that paved the way for the MasterCards and Visas of today.
“They stood like a colossus on top of the American retail market—bigger than the next four companies combined,” says Craig Johnson, president of consultant Customer Growth Partners. That was as recently as the 1980s. “Now they’re a 98-pound weakling.”